Last updated March 6, 2018 at 4:32 pm
Fifty years ago, on November 29 1967, Australia quietly became the third nation in space by launching a satellite from within its own territory. The conical satellite, perched on top of a rocket painted with a kangaroo, took dreams of an Aussie space age into Earth orbit.
Down under up over
The rocket wasn’t ours – it was a donated by the US – but it easily could have been. Australia had made its own upper atmosphere scientific or ‘sounding’ rockets since the 1950s.
In the early 1950s, a major international scientific project was being planned. This was the International Geophysical Year or IGY, to take place over 18 months in 1957-58. A goal of the programme was to launch the first satellite or ‘earth-circling spaceship’ into orbit.
One of the IGY organisers, Hugh Odishaw, made a list in 1954 of the countries who had the technology to make it out of the gravity well. The US and USSR, of course, but there were a number of others who had developed rockets. On his list were also the UK, France, Japan, and – Australia.
Despite this, Australia did not initiate a satellite launch programme of its own, content to be a collaborator in the ambitions of other nations launching rockets from Woomera in the red South Australian desert. It wasn’t until a leftover US Redstone rocket became available in 1966 that a home-grown satellite was proposed. The space scientists sprang into action, designing and building WRESAT 1 in just one year. A decade after the first satellite, Sputnik 1, we made it into orbit.
As the satellite burst through the atmosphere into space, the rocket that launched WRESAT 1 fell back to Earth, to be found by the recovery team in the Simpson Desert. The heat of re-entry had burnt much of the white paint with the kangaroo off, exposing the letters ‘USA’ again. The wreckage is now on display at the Woomera Heritage Centre rocket park (right).
Just as quietly, about 40 days later, the satellite was dragged back into the atmosphere and incinerated.
Owning our place in space
It has always astonished me that this extraordinary achievement is not celebrated more in Australia. Was this poppy just too tall?
Space had certainly caught the Australian imagination in the 1960s. In 1961, the Russians sent models of Vostok and Sputnik spacecraft to the International Trade Fair in Sydney, and people flocked to see them. ‘I Dream of Jeannie’ and ‘My Favourite Martian’ were popular family television viewing. The Australian Women’s Weekly published articles about the imminent conquest of the Moon, the astronauts who went there, and the women who married them. In the Blue Mountains, metal fabricator Dick West made a 12 m rocket tower for a children’s playground, and they spread like wildfire across the nation.
Newspapers covered WRESAT’s launch, of course, and NASA sent congratulations. In March the following year, WRESAT was featured in the Adelaide Festival opening street parade on a float complete with silver-clad space girls. But it doesn’t seem to have made Australia feel like a space-faring nation.
What else was happening in 1967? Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War (1955-1975) continued to polarise public opinion. In May, a referendum was held and the constitution amended to allow Aboriginal people to be counted in the census. Nearly three weeks after the launch, on December 17, Prime Minister Harold Holt disappeared while swimming, presumed drowned. Perhaps a lone satellite did not seem so critical to the state of the nation amidst these political events.
It has to be said the name wasn’t very appealing. WRESAT stood for Weapons Research Establishment Satellite. This was a far cry from the Explorers, Vanguards, and Sputniks, which at least made an attempt not to seem like military threats. The satellite was not a weapon itself, carrying instruments to study solar effects in the upper atmosphere – but it was launched from a place that was accessible to few Australians: a high security facility protected by distance and desert. There was no civil space programme as such, and there were few opportunities for the average Australian to feel involved.
WRESAT WREdux 2017
Much has changed since WRESAT 1. Fifty years later, there are six Australian-built satellites orbiting above us right now, although none were launched from Australia. Australis Oscar V (1970) and FedSat (2002) are space junk, but the active satellites were all launched this year: Inspire2, UNSW-EC0, SUsat, Biarri, and the most recent, Buccaneer, just last week. These are all Cubesats – small and light to launch, relatively cheap to manufacture. They’re changing the way space is done, and the government is revising its space legislation to make it easier for Australians to participate in this growing market.
The day before WRESAT’s anniversary, I’m at the Mt Stromlo Observatory near Canberra to participate in a ‘National Conversation on the Australian Space Industry’. On 25 September 2017, the first day of the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, the Federal government announced its intent to form a space agency. Now we’re embarking on the process of establishing a unique Australian presence in space, no longer under the shadow of our military allies. This will be a civil space industry, not hidden away behind Defence’s security walls.
So I wonder what the lessons we can learn from WRESAT 1 are. For me, one of them is to celebrate our proud history in space exploration. There are so many fascinating stories to be told, about the technology, the places and the people, and too few Australians know about them.
This time, let’s make space inclusive and accessible. It’s never been easier to engage the space-loving public through social media and citizen science. Let’s embrace our identity as a space-faring nation!
Perhaps the most important one of all: Don’t wait. Just do it.
For more about the history of WRESAT, read WRESAT: When Australia beat the world to space and watch Fifty years since Australia beat the world to space
To find out about Australia’s first satellite OSCAR-5, read The challenger to WRESATs crown
Woomera Heritage Centre rocket park image courtesy of Alice Gorman
Festival of Arts float image courtesy of National Archives of Australia/Steve Pietrobon